I spent most of yesterday figuring out how I felt about the murder of Osama bin Laden, and then tried to find some exactitude in my thinking by writing an article for a local news site. What I came to was some sort of basic discomfort with the idea that the President of the United States would express his intention to kill an individual.
Yes, any individual. Even an irredeemable wad of spoiled oil money and lies like Osama bin Laden.
Nation states are massive things. They are gargantuan and sprawling and all too often oafish in their disregard for individuals and their comparatively minor-league aspirations. In a confounding twist, however, individual aspirations are given their proper dress only within the imaginative crucibles of that same community. Indeed, individuals are the very organs of national expression; which is fine and good as long as the individuals express themselves within the acceptable limits of their community, but when they don’t… Watch out.
Now, communities like the United States have pretty broad limits–a fact that upsets countless conservatives and fundamentalists and heartens numberless liberals. One has to operate pretty far beyond the pale to draw the ire of the community. I, for one, find this to be the most intoxicating and magnificent thing about the United States. Its dizzying variety. Its cacophony of languages and flood of foods, customs and gods, is a glory. It took us 5,000 years to discover that the sacred spring flows best across a secular landscape, and I’m not willing to abandon that discovery. Like Whitman, I find the American ideal to be the best and only hope for our fussy and pugnacious race. I think that ideal is worth fighting for. It’s worth bleeding for, and yes, even worth dying for.
Rabble rousing to murder is beneath us–or at least it should be. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an action more antithetical to the “better angels of our nature”–to quote from one of our better angels–than to call for the assassination of a man. The murder by many of one is what America rises against, not calls to course. Above every other nation, America stands for the individual, the lonely Stetsoned figure on a plain. It’s a fiction, of course. We are, even the loneliest of us, a community, but the myth goes farther than any law to guarantee the solidity of the one. And it’s a myth sorely needed because every other fact of life blurs that solidity.
The individual is insubstantial in science, in psychology, in crowd dynamics, in fashion, in opinion, in taste; we need some bulwark against the tide that erodes you and me. “We hold these truths to be self evident…” Those kinds of bulwarks. If we don’t tell those kinds of stories the calculus of individuals derives an absurdity; foolishness becomes the limit we inhabit, statistically milling beneath the anonymous hump of a Gaussian function. We must not allow ourselves to be reduced to such abstractions. As gabbing primates, we have to protect the tails of the mean from the terrible weight of the middle. America’s story of self-representation and opportunity is one such protection. The narrative of the individual an indispensable layer in that story.
When the President calls for the assassination of an individual, he damages that story. We all know that the world can be ugly, and that sometimes we must become ugly too in order to mine for beauty or distill justice. But those moments of ugliness should shame us. They should be whispered about, or spilled over a drunken night amongst close friends, not peddled to the masses on 60 minutes. Such crass advertisements of Hammurabian-style justice only market our hypocrisy, not our might. Bin Laden’s guilt is beside the point. No, wait, I’ll go one better: bin Laden’s guilt is the point.
His guilt tested our salinity. Did we have the salt to choke our anger? Pummel our rage into submission? Superman punch our superior might into equanimity? The answer is, unfortunately, no. We mistook freedom for license. Forgetting Uncle Ben’s wisdom, we succumbed to Peter Parker’s injury, rather than aspiring to Spiderman’s restraint. We failed to be Lone Rangers and became a mob.
Every time one of our Presidents talked about hunting down bin Laden and hanging him from the highest tree, he doubled down on the bet that we weren’t strong enough to disinfect bin Laden’s lies. The lie that there is a moral equivalence between economic enticements and naked aggression. That unequal pay is the same as female circumcision. They are not. America has much to be ashamed of on the world stage–the Bhopal Indian disaster, Vietnam, the shockingly late arrival of civil rights for Blacks–but our most dreadful shame is not living up to our own aspirations.
You might rightly accuse me of having unrealistic expectations of America, and I wouldn’t argue. My hopes are unrealistic, but I’m unfamiliar with any other variety. I don’t actually care that bin Laden was killed by a SEAL team while he was unarmed and probably pissing himself, but I do care that we are a nation that no longer aspires to more noble solutions–even if those solutions are only ever found the day after never.